January 25, 2018

New Years resolutions with Babatunde

Babantunde, campaign 2014, love this picture!

Last October I had the chance to meet and hang out with entrepreneur and fashion designer Gareth Cowden of the brand Babatunde. I knew his brand very well from the store Lady Africa in Den Haag (NL). The cap, hats, bowties and umbrellas in colourful wax prints brighten up every outfit and make great gifts. When I heard he would be part of the Afrovibes program, I made sure we would meet.

Babatunde is known as a South African brand, but meeting Gareth I learned that the whole ‘African Fashiontrend’ isn’t always that helpful in developing a sustainable, strong brand. In our conversations on Skype and on Dutch soil we talked about what it meant to represent ‘Africa’, how it is in ‘South Africa’ and what is the actual power of fashion.

Gareth started Babatunde in 2009. He was working as a fashion stylist in music videos and fashion editor for magazines. To work in fashion in South Africa you have to be quite versatile. So the focus wasn’t just on menswear or advertisements, but a bit of everything. To create a more stable income, away from freelance, in combination with the wish to work outside South Africa, the idea of Babatunde came to life. With a visit to Gabon, Gareth noticed how different South Africa is from other African countries. Especially in what people wear. People don’t wear nearly as much prints in South Africa. Returning with the inspiration of seeing people wearing all these prints and with his knowledge of who does what around Johannesburg, he started Babatunde.

New Adidas #Adicolor Campaign from Trevor Stuurman with Babatunde umbrella

Openingnight of Afrovibes 2017 with a Babatunde photobooth

What’s in a name?

During the Lady Africa fashion show in Den Haag on 8 October a woman said: “Wauw Babatunde, such a special name.” So I made a note to ask Gareth about this during our conversations on Skype.

Babatunde means The Father Comes Back in Yoruba, a language spoken in West Africa.
First Gareth wanted to call the brand Bamako, after the capital of Mali. A lot of great music comes from there according to Gareth. Yet, he knew the name Babatunde for a long time, and it somehow clicked. It turned out to be the perfect name. He discovered the name through reggae. He started to research the name and discovered it worked for different reasons.
First, because it is a Yoruban name and not a South African name. This way he could pay homage to other African countries.
Also to show at home that there is more North of the Crocodile river. The possibility to share through his brand more about other African countries.
The best thing about the name Babatunde is the direct translation; The father comes back, the father returns. As Gareth explained: “We just need more father figures in Africa. Due to colonisation, due to Apartheid, family structures were destroyed. Now migrant labor, men leaving their communities in order the find work. Again family structures are destroyed. But also The need to take responsibility for your own actions and respecting others around you. It’s about creating awareness, The reason why we have these family structures. Showing a different kind of cool also. Being well mannered for example. Africa needs to grow and prosper. I don’t know how easy it is to get these messages across through a brand, through a cap or an umbrella someone bought in Tokyo or somewhere in Europe, but this is what I’m hoping to achieve with Babatunde.”

The love for wax

Growing up in South Africa, the experience of seeing something so different in Gabon and Mozambique struck with Gareth. It added something to the experience, subconsciously. All these colours.
At first Gareth thought Wax prints were purely African, made and designed. Although this isn’t the whole story of Wax prints, still there was something really representative of Africa in the prints. So he chose to start with making accessories with selected prints.
Long term Babatunde doesn’t have to be strictly Wax prints in Gareth’s eyes. For a brand to be strong, you need to be able to bring out a plain black cap or a plain black hat. Leather, or whatever. In the end it should be more about the name and what it represents, then the fabric it is made of.
On the other hand, it would be amazing if Babatunde was made in textiles specific to each region, even for each country or continent. The aim for Babatunde is to become more then a South African brand, to become a global brand. “I want to be a designer, a brand and a strong one, not only with the label {South} African. Yet I want to be a brand with a responsibility to where I am from”

Lady Africa Fashionshow on 8 October 2017 in Den Haag 
with a lot of wax prints from Julius Holland Wax 
and umbrellas by Babatunde

This responsibility comes with challenges. There are many challenges for working in South Africa. The equality, or better inequality. What local factories are capable of. Also the infrastructure is a challenge. For Gareth it is important to have the factories in South Africa, to make the products there. At the same time it feels like he can not make the products outside of South Africa. People in Europe assume when they see - Made in Uganda/South Africa/Ghana- they think, oh, it's fair trade, but they don’t know anything about how it is actually made, under which conditions it is made. Gareth asks himself if he can truly make a fair and sustainable product in South Africa. What does Fair trade actually mean? On paper it means that the workers are getting paid better, are living in better houses, but in reality what does that look like? If they get paid minimum wage that is considered fair, but is it? Especially if you compare it to the wages people earn in the country where the products are eventually sold. So what is so fair about that? As a brand you don’t want to celebrate your employees can live the most basic life possible. You want a true improvement.
“Keeping the integrity of the brand is very important {for me}. If I keep the brand South African, there are a lot of benefits for the integrity of the brand. It is harder, but it is the future. I’m not trying to be a hero, I’m just trying to run a normal business. Here I can at least see how my products are made. But it isn’t perfect.”

For all the hardship and challenges you face making a brand work, it's little moments that make it worthwhile. Like hanging out with Erykah Badu for an hour, so jealous of that. Solange wearing Babatunde on stage. But also visiting Paris and spotting on the first night there, someone wearing his hat. A surreal and rewarding moment.
In the end its about everyone who chooses to wear my products. It is amazing that someone in Lagos, Miami, Tokyo can even get Babatunde. Thats it's so special.

Gareth’s ideas for the future of his brand are interesting and when I asked when Babatunde would be considered a success in his eyes, he answered “For Babatunde to be successful it needs to be able to employ 20 people. It can chance peoples lives if it gives work. Gives people salaries. But not only short term, it needs to be sustainable. Thats my dream. Thats what I want to do!”

I want to thank Gareth for sharing his thoughts and experience with his brand & I hope he can reach his dreams in the near future!

You can shop Babatunde at Lady Africa on Denneweg 21A in Den Haag 
and on their webshop www.lady-africa.com

For more on Babatunde go to babatunde.co.za 
or follow on Instagram & Facebook 

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